John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche
After devoting over seven years to sharing and discussing photos in Flickr, I decided to transition into Google+. To be quite honest, I did so rather reluctantly, at the insistence of my wife, who convinced me that Google is the up and coming social network, especially for people with professional interests in a topic.
Now that I’ve been participating actively in Google for two months, I inevitably find myself comparing Google to Flickr. My conclusions are based on my own personal experiences that will not generalize to everyone. Nevertheless, as a photographer who works a lot in cyberspace, as well as a psychologist who specializes in the study of online behavior and what I call “photographic psychology” (the study of how people create, share, and react to images in the age of digital photography), I find myself reacting intuitively.
When one size fits all
Flickr was intended specifically for photographers, while Google+ is a more general purpose social network. That makes a significant difference in how well they work specifically for photography.
The impetus for many social networks like Google+ is to become a “one size fits all” vehicle. To achieve that aim, its creators try to offer as many features as possible. Google has done a much better job of this than Facebook, which in my opinion is an almost incomprehensible mishmash of text boxes, icons, and pop-up thingys… not to mention the ads sprinkled all over the place. By comparison, Google provides a simpler, better organized, and more aesthetically pleasing interface.
Who sees what?
However, in my opinion, Google+ is still more complicated than it needs to be for photographers. Case in point: even after being there for two months, I’m still not sure, of the few photography groups I belong to and the very few circles (groups) I’ve created for myself, who can see what when I post something. For me, it’s not reassuring when I have to research documentation to figure out who can see what I’m posting. This is a problem with complex social networking systems. There’s so much versatility in creating various audiences and overlapping audiences for your posts that you’re not always sure who your audience is. I don’t ever remember having that problem in Flickr.
Where am I?
As another example of the complexity of Google+, I asked a more experienced colleague what he felt was the best way for me to communicate with him. He replied that, “You can communicate with me here, in this thread.” That was OK with me, except I wasn’t sure where “here” was or how to get back to it. Again, I don’t ever remember having that problem in Flickr.
Of course, when we enter any new online community, we must tackle the learning curve of how to use it effectively. Over time, we get better at it. We understand more about how it works. The bottom line is that the learning curve for Google+ is steeper than for Flickr.
Sometimes less is more
I have to admit that I let out a silent sigh of visual relief when I return to Flickr. Yes, it’s a more familiar place to me, at least right now, but the interface is comparatively simpler, streamlined in appearance, and easier to use. The more “Zen” an online environment looks, the more I like it.
The image stream
When people come to visit your work, they often land on the page where they can see the sequence of photos you have posted over time. In Flickr we call it a “photostream,” which is a term I always liked. The equivalent space in Google+ is your “profile,” which is a term I find a bit confusing.
Those images in your stream often are the first ones visitors will see. That first view is important. After all, it is the first impression many people will have of your work, and we know how important first impressions are. If a photo doesn’t look good to people right off the bat, they might not click-through to see the larger sizes.
The images in the photostream of Flickr are considerably bigger and sharper than in the profile pages of Google+. Flickr does automatically apply a sharpening algorithm to the uploaded image as it downsizes that image to fit into the first-look box, assuming you uploaded a file bigger than what can fit into the first-look space (all images need to be sharpened when they are downsized in order to retain their clarity). As it gains momentum, Google will hopefully do something similar.
Because Google+ is a multipurpose social network, any image you post, or any images you view, will be mixed in with posts that don’t contain photographs or that contain images and information that aren’t about photography per se. The profile page in Google is more blog-like, and not intended specifically for your photos. In Flickr, it’s all streams of photographic images – although, I’m sad to say, very few visitors pay attention to the themes and patterns of someone’s photostream.
The photo home page
In both Flickr and Google, when you click on an image in the stream of images, you go to the home page for that image. In both social networks, the quality of the image is roughly comparable (tho a bit bigger in Google), as are the features on that page for accessing camera data and discussing the photo. From that home page, Flickr does enable you to access image sets, to see where you are in the person’s photostream, to see and create tags for the photo, to see what groups the photo has been submitted to, and to view a wider variety of sizes of the image. If it is serious about having photographers come to their land, Google might add such features.
Flickr will also tell you how many views there were of that home page for the photo. Google doesn’t offer that data, which means if visitors didn’t leave a comment or “plus’ed” it, you don’t know if anyone even looked at it.
“I like this”
Both Flickr and Google allow you to indicate that you like a photo, without necessarily having to leave a complimentary comment. In Flickr you click the “Fav” button while in Google+ it’s the “Plus.”
One nice feature of Google is that you can also plus a person’s name in a comment you make, as well as plus someone’s comment. In other words, you can drive up the ratings of not just particular photos, but also people’s comments about photos and the person’s general reputation.
Personally, I think being able to plus someone’s comment is a very nice feature of Google. There are lots of great photos in both Flickr and Google fully deserving of favs and pluses, but great comments are much harder to find. In fact, good discussions about photographs are hard to find, in part because both cultures have that “stop, drop, and go” mentality, and in part because many photographers, even the very good ones, don’t know how to talk about photography. Perhaps rewarding a good comment with a plus can reverse those dilemmas.
Image organization, slide shows, etc
Google and Flickr are generally comparable in how you can create different collections of photos. Both also offer a feature that enables visitors to see a slide show of your collections. It’s a good idea to organize your online photos, if only so you can find them more easily. Organizing photos also helps you better understand the type of photography you do.
However, I’m not sure that visitors in Google or Flickr actually use these features very much. In my experience, a vast majority of activity in online photosharing is a matter of stop, drop (a short comment or fav/plus), and go.
“Can we talk?”
As I just said, there are tons of excellent photos in Flickr, Google, and all over the Internet. Therefore, at least in my book, I want more from a photosharing community than just good photos. I want good discussions about our photosharing.
Unfortunately, that’s something that’s not easy to find. After all my years in Flickr of encouraging conversation in my photostream, and offering thousands (literally) of what I consider thoughtful comments im other photographers’ photostreams, I now feel like I’m squeezing blood out of a rock when trying to get good discussions going. When people do leave comments, they’re mostly terse complimentary remarks like “Good capture” and “I like the colors.”
Google does seem a bit better in terms of good conversations about photography, perhaps because it’s not designed strictly for photographers, who often tend to be visual rather than verbal people. But I think there are other factors at play here too…
The culture and it’s life cycle
Every group, online or offline, develops its own unique customs and culture. It seems to me that in the decade or so of its existence, Flickr has gradually become more like a ratings game than a social network per se. People pay more attention to view counts, the number of comments, and the number of favs that you get. That’s part of human nature: we like to count the countables, rather than focus on more intangible things such as the quality of photosharing.
In my opinion, Flickr has become a victim of its own success. In it’s massive ocean of millions of members and billions of photos, people get overwhelmed and lost. There are too many people, too much to look at, too much to comment on. As a result, people resort to the numbers game as an indication of something that seems important, which ultimately leads to frustration and disappointment. Back in the day, I had a good group of Flickr friends to share and discuss photos with. Gradually becoming more and more disillusioned with Flickr for all the reasons I've mentioned, almost all of those people have left.
As a younger community in the early days of its life cycle, Google+ does possess more enthusiasm. It too may eventually sucumb to the numbers game scenario in which people who play the game well do well. In the meanwhile, though people are excited about it as the up-and-coming social. That enthusiasm shows in the day-to-day experience of being there. Flickr, by contrast, strikes me as a jaded, dying community. When I think of Flickr, I’m beginning to say to myself, “Been there, done that.”
The new generation of social networking
Regardless of the fact that Flickr contains some features that are better for photographers than those offered by Google, it’s on the decline as a social network. Over time Google might improve on its photosharing tools so that it catches up to Flickr. But for now it can ride on the enthusiasm that people feel about it, in part because it's built on a more savvy understanding of search functions, online authorship, and reputation building in social networks.
In a nutshell…
Google+ is waxing as a social network, while Flickr is waning.
That’s just the way the Internet works. People like to feel that they’re moving on to new, unexplored territories. Yesterday’s social network feels like old hat, even though it works well.
Some photographers might continue to join Flickr because it was designed for photographers and because there are many good photographers still there. But I’m guessing Google - as the more modern world designed by a company that is putting some very serious thought and effort into innovative social networking– is going to gain momentum as the new home for serious photographers.
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